At the beginning of spring training, Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch soaked in everything he saw in Lakeland, Florida. To build a winning culture, he needed to learn how his players best communicated with their coaches and teammates.
One player surprised him: third baseman Jeimer Candelario. Before Hinch was hired, he had seen the numbers from Candelario’s breakthrough 2020 season and hoped he would help anchor the top of the batting order.
What Hinch didn’t know, however, was just how engaged and outspoken Candelario is on a daily basis. He saw it firsthand in camp watching the 27-year-old interact with his teammates, specifically his friend and mentor Miguel Cabrera.
“I’ve watched it,” Hinch said. “You can easily see the bond that Miggy and Jeimer have created over the last couple of seasons. I see them talking about adjustments that need to be made. I see them talking about their batting practices and how they go about it. I applaud Miggy for being the mentor and Jeimer for being wise enough to tap into it.”
Candelario’s 2021 lines up well with his 2020, which featured a .297 batting average, 21 extra-base hits, 29 RBIs, 20 walks and 49 strikeouts in 52 games. This season, he has carried the Tigers by hitting .266 with 13 doubles, four home runs, 18 RBIs, 22 walks and 63 strikeouts in 57 games.
Hinch’s first year at the helm is crucial to the Tigers’ future plans. In Candelario’s case, the organization needs to find out whether he deserves a contract extension or is expendable via trade.
“When I was young, I just would compete with my talent and what I had,” Candelario said. “Now I’m using my mental and my talent. It really helps me when I get to the batter’s box. I know what I’m doing. I just got to attack that pitcher with a plan, and it’s paying off.”
The toughest challenge in Candelario’s career came in 2019, less than two years after the Tigers acquired Candelario and infielder Isaac Paredes from the Chicago Cubs at the 2017 trade deadline in exchange for reliever Justin Wilson and catcher Alex Avila.
A slow start to the season — he hit .192 over his first 38 games of the year in the majors — led the Tigers to option him to Triple-A Toledo in mid-May. He bounced back and forth between Detroit and Toledo, spending 39 games with the Mud Hens and 94 games with the Tigers that season. In the majors, he struggled to hit .200 with limited power; in the minors, he hit .320 with 21 extra-base hits.
“It was really important in my career because you learn from the mistakes,” Candelario said. “Sometimes you’re going to fall down, and you got to get back up. I learned that you have to produce in the big leagues, no matter what. You have to do the best you can to help the team win.”
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Candelario picked up his game by improving his pregame preparation, something Cabrera has been praised for throughout his 19-year MLB career.
A Triple Crown winner and two-time American League MVP, the 38-year-old Cabrera is seemingly a lock to make the Hall of Fame. But he wouldn’t be nearing 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, with a lifetime .311 batting average, if not for the combination of his talent and preparation.
Likewise, Candelario implements a healthy approach beginning with his pregame routine. He has learned more about his strengths and weaknesses, so his goal is to gain confidence by figuring out how to attack each pitcher. Then, he adds his talent to the mix.
“I mean, he keeps it simple,” Cabrera said. “He goes out there and takes a base hit. If the pitcher makes a mistake, he hits the ball in the gap. I think that’s the best way we can do it at the plate, work the count and try to make something happen.”
“There will be at-bats where he is super disciplined, and there’s also at-bats where he’s fairly aggressive,” Hinch said. “Bat-to-ball skills are really good. That well-rounded approach allows him to dictate what he’s trying to do in any given at-bat. I’ve seen teams shift him; I’ve seen teams unshift him. That tells me he’s a confusing hitter for the other side. They’re not quite sure what his tendencies are going to be. That has led to a few more holes being open for him.”
Candelario has played 109 games since the start of the 2020 season, hitting .280 (113-for-403) with 11 home runs and 47 RBIs. He has walked 42 times and struck out 112 times, boasting a .351 on-base percentage.
Entering Sunday, Candelario has 15 multi-hit games. He reached base in 29 games in a row, the longest streak in the majors, from April 29 through June 3.
“I want to be more consistent,” Candelario said. “It’s hard to be consistent on your plan, you have to work on that. I want to be consistent all the time in my approach, with what I want to do to the pitcher and what he’s trying to do to me. That’s the main thing for me.”
To get to this point, Candelario leaned on Cabrera. Cabrera isn’t the same player he was in his prime, with a .197 batting average in 42 games this year, but he owns a wealth of knowledge.
Candelario prioritized following him around and asking questions.
“I think he’s blossomed under a really strong relationship with Miggy,” Hinch said. “When you got Miguel Cabrera on the other side of the diamond, or in the same hitting group, or in and around the clubhouse, you’d be crazy not to tap into that expertise and that wisdom.”
Cabrera’s contract extends through the 2023 season, and it’s unlikely he’ll be done before then. But just as he’s likely to stick around, so too is Candelario, thanks to his efforts to mirror Cabrera’s attention to detail. Relying on preparation rather than talent alone, he earned an every-day spot and established his presence in the lineup.
That’s why it’s becoming easier to see Candelario sticking around into the future.
“We help each other. He helps me, and I help him,” Cabrera said. “We talk a lot, not just about baseball. We talk about life, about everything. We’re really close, and he’s a really nice guy. We love helping the team.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.